What Will History Say?

Time's On His Side

By Vincent J. Cannato
Sunday, December 3, 2006

After the 2004 election, a number of terribly depressed people at my university told me what a shame it was that President Bush had been reelected. If only people knew history, they lamented, they would never have voted for him.

It must be a comforting thought that this abstract thing called "history" can give us the wisdom to choose the right president, as if history books were Ouija boards and historians were modern-day oracles.

Certainly, some historians see themselves that way. In early 2004, just three years into the Bush administration, an "informal, unscientific survey of historians" by the History News Network found that more than 80 percent believed that the president was already a failure. And a miserable one at that.

Earlier this year, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz took to the pages of Rolling Stone to ponder whether Bush is the "worst president in history" and concluded that he "appears headed for colossal historical disgrace."

So, case closed? Not yet. I long ago learned to look with suspicion when members of the left-leaning historical profession delve into contemporary politics or profess near unanimity. Today's pronouncements that Bush is the "worst president ever" are too often ideology masquerading as history.

Historical and popular judgments about presidents are always in flux. Dwight D. Eisenhower used to be considered a banal and lazy chief executive who embodied the "conformist" 1950s. Today, his reputation has improved because of more positive appraisals of his Cold War stewardship. Ronald Reagan, whom many historians dismissed as an amiable dunce, has also had his stock rise. On the flip side, Bill Clinton's presidency looks somewhat different after Monica Lewinsky, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and 9/11 than it did in 1997.

Perhaps Bush can take solace in the case of Harry S. Truman, who was reviled at the end of his presidency, with approval numbers hovering around 30 percent. Too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, Truman was saddled with an unpopular stalemate in the Korean War and accusations of corruption at home. Many saw him as a belligerent rube, too unsophisticated for the White House.

Today, however, many historians have revised their estimate of his presidency upward. There certainly are echoes of Truman in the current carping about Bush.

Most clearly, the Iraq war colors every judgment about Bush these days -- and increasingly, that color is dark. Weakened by the conflict, the administration is now stymied on challenges such as North Korea and Iran. And while focusing most of its energies on terrorism and Iraq, the Bush administration -- for which I worked briefly as a speechwriter in 2001 -- has been less energetic on the domestic front. Attempts at entitlement reform and tax reform have stalled, as has immigration reform. But there have been domestic policy successes: tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind Act, the prescription drug plan and housing policies that have expanded home ownership. All have their critics, but they represent some semblance of a domestic policy.

Any appraisal of Bush's record must consider that he took over in difficult times. By most objective measures, the economy is doing well: Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are low, economic growth is steady, and the stock market is climbing. Complaints about income inequality are legitimate, but the issue has long-term structural roots, and neither party has done much to address it.

What is disheartening is the tendency of many historians to rate presidents based on their support for liberal social policies. Just as frustrating is the inability to acknowledge the deep debates over law enforcement measures, such as the USA Patriot Act, enacted after 9/11. Rather than acknowledge the tough tradeoffs between security and privacy, we are left with the hyperbole that this administration is "trampling on civil liberties." Sometimes wisely and sometimes rashly, Bush has steered the nation through the post-9/11 world. It has been an uneven trip so far, but the country has not suffered another attack in more than five years.

Much of Bush's legacy will rest on the future trajectory of the fight against terrorism, the nation's continued security and the evolving direction of the Middle East. Things may look grim today, but that doesn't ensure a grim future.

No one expects historians to be perfectly objective. But history should at least teach us humility. Time will cool today's political passions. As years pass, more documents will be released, more insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era will be painted. Only then will we begin to see how George W. Bush fares in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.

I don't know how history will judge him. My guess is that, like most presidents, he will bequeath a mixed record. We can debate policies and actions now, but honesty should force us to acknowledge that real judgments will have to wait.

Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company